The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, is perhaps the first successful 9/11 book. Having said that, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. That, perhaps, is the measure of its success. Marina, Julius, and Danielle, close friends at an elite Ivy League university, now suffer from a sort of Post-Graduate Distress Syndrome. Danielle, a struggling public television producer, finds herself entangled in an inappropriate affair with an older, married man. Julius, a poverty-stricken reviewer for the Village Voice, finds himself settling for the mediocrity of a ‘normal’ relationship with a financial trader who has a serious drug addiction. Marina, the beautiful and much-touted daughter of respected journalist Murray Thwaite, finds herself living at home with her parents, desperately trying to finish a nearly decade-old manuscript entitled The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, on the thrilling topic of how changes in childhood fashions are tied to changes in society.
Into the lives of these characters come three unexpected events: the wooing of Marina by Ludovic Seely, a cynical Australian publisher; the appearance of Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, Marina’s befuddled autodidactic college-dropout of a cousin; and 9/11, an event that really needs no description (and, to the credit of this novel, does not get much of one).
Messud has written a complex and lovingly crafted character portrait of 3 aimless thirty-somethings living in New York City in the early Noughties. Reader beware: this could be you. The most lovely, and simultaneously frustrating, part of this book is the degree to which one sympathizes with the main characters despite their obvious foibles, fripperies, and, much of the time, superficiality. The muddled insecurity of Marina, the painfully aware self-deception of Danielle, the willing self-abnegation of Julius, and the self-absorbed monomania of “Bootie,” are all uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has lived through their late twenties/early thirties in the latter half of this century. This is quite a few of you.
Despite the richness of potential for social satire, Messud manages to tread the fine line between depth of character and comedy of manners. By the time 9/11 rolls around, we are so caught up in the life and times of these people, that it is simply another moment in their lives. Read this way, it almost seems hubristic to try to say more about it. One is grateful to Messud for leaving it to this. For leaving it to us.